Nowadays, it became a commonplace practice among conservative politicians to suggest that the key to America’s greatness is the citizens’ endowment with the sense of a commercial industriousness. Nevertheless, even though that there is a certain rationale to this suggestion, there are also a number of good reasons to believe that it is due to the American citizens’ earlier mentioned psychological trait that their country periodically finds itself standing on the threshold of an economic collapse.
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The analysis of what caused the outbreak of the Great Depression, during the course of the thirties, and what triggered the financial crisis of 2008-2009, confirms the validity of this statement. Apparently, contrary to what the proponents of neo-liberalism strive to make us to believe, people’s preoccupation with trying to generate a commercial profit, as the main point of their lives, cannot be regarded as such that represents the value of a ‘thing in itself’.
This is because the notion of people’s ‘commercial industriousness’ is synonymous to the notion of a blind moneymaking greed, which in turn is synonymous with the notion of immorality. In my paper, I will explore the legitimacy of this suggestion at length, in regards to what account for the morally dubious ethics of many characters in the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross by James Foley and in the Jane Smiley’s 2003 novel Good Faith.
As of today, the majority of ‘progressive’ political scientists in America never ceases pointing out to the fact that the biggest problem, faced by the American society, is racism. However, it is not racism, which accounts for the country’s ‘little dirty secret’, but rather classism. That is, the measure of just about every citizen’s worthiness is being accessed in regards to the sum of money that she or he happened to have in the bank – regardless of the actual source of this money.
There is a memorable scene in Glengarry Glen Ross, where the character of Blake (Alec Baldwin) delivers a speech in front of real-estate agents, while insisting that it is namely the volume of one’s monetary assets that reflects the concerned individual’s true worth, and that there simply cannot be a good enough excuse for these agents to justify their professional unsuccessfulness: “I made $970,000 last year.
How much you make? You see pal, that’s who I am, and you’re nothing. Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids. You want to work here – close!” (00.11.56). Apparently, Blake firmly believed that, in the field of a real-estate business, there could only be two categories of professionals – winners and losers. Everything else is irrelevant.
It is needless to mention, of course, that the Blake’s suggestion, in this respect, implies that contrary to the assumption that the American economy’s functioning has very little to do with the principles of a ‘wild capitalism’, this is far from being the actual case.
Just as it used to be the situation even as far back, as a hundred years ago, the extent of just about every American entrepreneur’s successfulness reflects the measure of his or her emotional comfortableness with the ‘law of jungle’, based upon the Darwinian principle of the ‘survival of the fittest’.
However; whereas, in the animal kingdom the practical manifestations of this principle being at work are concerned with the process of carnivorous predators catching and eating herbivores, in human societies they are concerned with the process of cynically minded individuals taking away money from those who happened to be little too trustworthy.
This provides us with an insight into the discursive significance of Blake’s ‘commandment’: “They are (buyers) sitting out there, waiting to give you their money. Are you gonna take it? Are you man enough to take it?” (00.12.27). Being deprived of any illusions, as to the fact that it is possible for people to conduct an ‘ethical business’, this character knew perfectly well that it is specifically the entrepreneurs’ willingness to deceive their business-partners, which creates objective preconditions for them to be able to succeed in commerce.
As Geva noted: “Business is expected to do whatever is necessary in order to succeed, and is not expected to be concerned with abstract morality. Business is a one-dimensional, purely profit-seeking enterprise. Profit is not just prioritized; it is elevated to the exclusion of all other interests” (585).
It will not be much of an exaggeration, on our part, to suggest that in the world of a corporate business, the main ‘ethical’ rule is – if you have not been caught doing anything illegal, you are considered an upstanding citizen, even if everybody knows that you are in fact a con-master.
The soundness of this statement can be well illustrated in relation to the psychological inclinations of one of the Smiley novel’s main characters – a land-developer Marcus Burns. The first thing we learn about him is that he used to work for the IRS. The second thing that we learn is that Burns used to take pride in the fact that, while working for the IRS, he figured out how to steal money without facing the consequences: “The tax code is transforming before your very eyes, and everyone is perfectly happy to see it happen…
Accountants are in the business of making sure the books balance. That’s all. You could steal a company blind, but if the books balanced, the accountant would have done his job” (Smiley 101). What is especially ironic about this character is that, as it appears from the novel, Burns never ceased considering himself a thoroughly moral individual.
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In its turn, this can be explained by the fact that, just as it happened to be the case with many of the novel’s characters, involved in real-estate trading, Burns was raised in the family of Protestant Bible-thumpers. As such, he was naturally inclined to consider speculative moneymaking to be the noblest pursuit of all – according to the Protestant doctrine, one’s financial well-being is the foremost proof that he or she is in favor with law-imposing (rather than with mercy-granting) God.
As opposed to what it is being the case with Catholics, Protestants consider the Old Testament being just as valid as the New One. Yet, the foremost idea that it is being promoted throughout the course of the Old Testament’s entirety, is that there are God’s ‘chosen people’, on the one hand, and ‘infidels’, on the other, and that it is fully permissible for ‘chosen people’ to deceive the latter, when it comes to making money.
Partially, this explains why Burns used to make a point in maintaining the observable respectability of its physical appearance: “He (Marcus Burns) was very neat, almost formal. Even though the weather was hot, he was wearing a light blue shirt, a navy blue tie, and a sport coat.
The shirt collar had a starchy sheen and lay smoothly against his neck. The cuffs emerged a half inch from the sleeve of his jacket” (58). Apparently, this was nothing but the extrapolation of Burns’ deep-seated irrational belief in his own infallibility, as someone who enjoyed the privilege of being able to steal and extort money from others, without sustaining any harm to its reputation, as a result
The full soundness of suggestion can also be shown, in regards to a Burn’s genuine conviction that is indeed possible to enjoy a nice living, while paying for all the expenses with essentially non-existing money: “The simplest legal way that takes no cheating and no creative bookkeeping and passes every audit… You live on borrowed money. You sell the property – piece by piece to pay the interest and you keep borrowing more” (153).
Formally speaking, this Burn’s idea does make a certain sense. After all, why does one need to be required to apply an effort into producing any factual products and services, when he or she can invest into some real-estate property, wait for a year or two, and to resell it for twice as much – hence, having made money out of the thin air?
Burns outlined the philosophy behind this line of reasoning rather frankly: “More people mean scarcer resources, scarcer resources mean inflation, and inflation means property and interest-bearing capital have a higher value and work has a lower value. It’s as simple as that” (149). Yet, this way of thinking is clearly unethical.
After all, it is a namely people’s willingness to indulge in financial speculations in the real-estate market that create objective prerequisites for the outbreaks of financial crises, such as the one of 2008-2009.
Throughout the course of the decade, prior to the outbreak of this crisis, the majority of less than upstanding Americans rushed into applying for easy down-payment loans. Yet, even though these people were clearly incapable of sticking to the terms of the contract, banks were still qualifying them for credits – just as real-estate agents were willing to go as far as to overlook the mental inadequacy of many of potential house-buyers.
There is another memorable scene in Glengarry Glen Ross, where after having bragged about selling the $82.000 real-estate unit, Shelley Levene (Jack Lemmon) is being told by John Williamson (Kevin Spacey) that the buyers were in fact mentally ill: “They’re (buyers) nuts. They used to call in every week… They’re nuts… The people are insane. They just like talking to salesmen” (01.32.12). Despite being a professional real-estate agent, Levene still could not figure it out.
The reason for this is simple – he has been trained to only care about accomplishing ‘closures’, regardless of whether these accomplishments were ethical or not. This also explains why, as it is being shown throughout the film, it represents a commonplace practice among real-estate agents to lie to their clients in the most blatant manner, without giving a thought that there could be anything wrong about it.
This simply could not be otherwise, because up until comparatively recently, the very functioning of a real-estate business was fueled by the involved parties’ willingness to generate lies and to resell these lies to each other in the form of financial obligations. As Burns noted: “A big loan is an asset.
All those deposits… are the liabilities, and those loans are assets. (We need) to transform the savings and loan from a money loser to moneymaker, to make the books look good… (to make) make big loans, which go on the asset side and cover old loans that aren’t making any profit” (152).
Again, even though that the above quoted statement seems thoroughly logical, it is highly immoral. Apparently, while referring to loans in terms of an ‘asset’, Burns was promoting the idea that the practice of capitalizing on ‘derivatives’ (financial contracts between two parties, backed by the third party’s financial obligations, which could be bought and sold in the open market) is fully appropriate.
However, as we are now well aware of, this practice created a paradoxical situation – while individual risks in the real-estate market were being continuously lowered, the overall risk for the whole financial system to lose its stability kept on growing evermore heightened. Therefore, it was only the matter of time, before the ‘real-estate bubble’ would blow (which happened in 2008) – hence, instantly impoverishing millions and millions of ordinary Americans.
It is needless to mention, of course, that those that are obsessed with making money at any cost are naturally inclined to adopt a positive attitude towards the notion of a so-called ‘victimless crime’, as nothing short of a driving force behind the free-market economy’s proper functioning.
This is the reason why, while talking about the prospect of stealing Glengarry leads in the film, the characters of Dave Moss (Ed Harris) and George Aaronow (Alan Arkin) never made any mentioning of the fact that theft is a highly immoral deed. All they seemed to be concerned about was whether their thieving intention could be considered thoroughly safe or not: “Moss: Robery… is a crime. That’s right. It’s also very safe” (00.43.50).
After all, if one assumes that it is fully appropriate to make money out of the thin air, then there could be only a few obstacles on the way of the concerned individual coming to assume that there is nothing unethical about the concept of a robbery, as it fits rather well within the discursive framework of speculative moneymaking.
However, it is not only that in both: the novel and the film, the characters’ moral ambivalence is being reflected by their willingness to participate in semi-illegal scheming in the real-estate market, but also by the very essence of their existential attitudes, in general.
For example, while expounding on the subject of what should be considered the right way to live, the film’s character Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) states: “There’s an absolute morality? Maybe. And then what? If you think there is, go ahead, be that thing. Bad people go to hell? I don’t think so” (00.40.26). Even though that the above-statement appears being of a general nature, there can be only a few doubts, as to the fact that the person who uttered it is more than capable of acting anti-socially.
Essentially the same can be said about the novel’s narrator Joe Stratford. Even though that Stratford is being represented as a socially established individual who adheres to the provisions of conventional ethics, he nevertheless appears fully comfortable with the idea that, in order for just about anyone to be able to succeed in life, he or she will need to ‘bend’ these provisions, if circumstances call for it.
For example, the novel’s context implies that Stratford considered withholding certain information about the real-estate property from clients, as the main precondition for this property to be successfully sold: “The house was listed for $89.900, a kitchen and two large rooms down, four bedrooms, a bath, and a sleeping porch up…
They (buyers) offered $81,000… I was sure the seller would take it because the property was starting to deteriorate” (39). As this excerpt denotes, the real-estate item was sold to buyers, without the latter having been informed about the state of affairs with the item’s actual condition.
As it was mentioned earlier, because of their preoccupation with profit-seeking, as the foremost purpose of their lives, the majority of the featured characters in Glengarry Glen Ross and Good Faith were naturally growing to adopt strongly cynical attitudes towards the surrounding societal reality. In its turn, this affected these characters’ private lives, as well. This explains the utterly graphic references to sex in both pieces.
For example, while addressing the subject of happiness in his conversation with James Lingk (Jonathan Pryce), Roma states: “I’m in bed… she brought me cafe au lait, gives me a cigarette, my balls feel like concrete” (00.41.39). As this Roma’s remark implies, it was due to the concerned woman’s behavioral submissiveness that he was becoming sexually aroused.
We can well speculate that Roma’s chauvinistic attitude towards women indirectly derived out of his strive to ‘remain in control’, while working with clients. This simply could not be otherwise, because people’s continual successfulness in suppressing others intellectually and emotionally (as real-estate traders act towards their clients) naturally cause them to assume themselves being superior – and, those who believe in their ‘superiority’ strive to be surrounded by ‘servants’.
The fact that working in the real-estate sector causes people to overlook the rules of conventional ethics can also be shown in regards to the graphically depicted sexual escapades between Stratford and Felicia in Good Faith, such as the following: “We kissed and kissed. I could feel the palm of her hand glowing against the back of my neck, her fingers pushed up into my hair. My hands were somewhere—the small of her back, her cheek.
And I could feel my cock pressing against her belly through our clothes, coats and all” (21). Given the Felicia’s status of a married woman, Stratford’s adulterous affair with her can hardly be considered ethical. Yet, even though that in the novel, the narrator positions himself as a mildly religious person, it never occurred to him to think that by pursuing a sexual relationship with Felicia he was acting sinfully.
One of the reasons for that is that individuals, involved in speculative trading/selling, are being perfectly aware of the fact that it is specifically people’s animalistic instincts that make them ‘tick’ and not their rationale-based moral predispositions.
This also explains the novel’s subtle hints as to the fact that, despite the skin-deep layer of ‘respectability’ that covers real-estate business, this business’ practitioners are driven by their utterly irrational sense of greed. Hence, these people’s strong fascination with money, as not only the mean of ensuring the effectiveness of commercial transactions, but as something that represents the metaphysical value of a ‘thing in itself’.
The full soundness of this suggestion becomes self-evident in light of how Burns used to talk on the subject of money: “There’s money everywhere! Money, money, money!… Reported income is like cockroaches. For every dollar you see, there are a hundred more in hiding. And it’s looking for a home!” (183).
This statement cannot even be discussed within the conceptual framework of ethics, because the person who came up with it seems to have suffered from being not entirely adequate, in the psychological sense of this word. At the same time, however, it did not prevent him from being considered an upstanding citizen, right until the novel’s very end.
This again highlights the foremost message, conveyed by this novel – it does not make much of a sense to believe that the considerations of ethics play even a small role, within the context of how real-estate traders go about addressing their professional challenges. All that matters for those who do business in the real-estate market is the prospect of generating a monetary profit – even at the expense of destroying the society’s integrity from within.
I believe that the deployed line of argumentation, as to what should be considered the discursive significance of how Glengarry Glenn Ross and Good Faith tackle the subject of ethics, fully correlates with the paper’s initial thesis.
Apparently, there can indeed be very little reason to think that, while left on its own, people’s sense of greed is capable of creating ‘economic miracles’. Therefore, there is nothing too surprising about the fact that, as of today, the economic paradigm of Socialism is again becoming ever more appealing to people in traditionally capitalist countries.
Geva, Aviva. “Myth and Ethics in Business.” Business Ethics Quarterly 11.4 (2001): 575-597. Print.
Glengarry Glenn Ross. Dir. James Foley. Perfs. Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin. New Line Cinema, 1992.
Smiley, Jane. Good Faith. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2003.